From Socialist Voice, January 2008

Book review

Shell and Ireland

Michael McCaughan, The Price of Our Souls: Gas, Shell and Ireland, Dublin: AFRI, 2007.

The drama of the Rossport Five began nine years ago when the Corrib gas project was announced. A few years later Shell bought the controlling stake in the project and outlined its plans to construct an on-shore pipeline close to the community at Rossport, Co. Mayo, and a gas treatment terminal at Bellanaboy.

    This project got the go-ahead of the Government, despite the absence of the relevant planning permissions and the consent of the local people. The project also got the backing of the local authority in Co. Mayo, the business community, and the western development body.
    Shell set about implementing its plans by means of project-splitting to facilitate the obtaining of planning permission. It used every means at its disposal to achieve this: bribery, spin, intimidation, arrogance, lack of information-sharing, and secretiveness about its plans. This was no way to allay concerns and secure the support of the local community, who have enjoyed this beautiful environment for hundreds of years. The local people were not going to see it destroyed and their lives endangered by a project the details of which were not disclosed.
    This strategy is par for the course by companies like Shell throughout the world, where there is no respect for local culture and the environment: only the “bottom line” counts.
    The people objected to these plans on safety, health and environmental grounds and set about creating a strong group to resist its implementation. Despite this, Shell insisted on implementing the project and succeeded in getting an injunction in the courts to prevent the people from obstructing the work. When the people’s resistance continued, five of the leaders were jailed in June 2005 for ninety-three days. The jailing mobilised the local people to intensify their resistance and to seek assistance on a wider level. While the resistance has widespread local support, much of this is not openly expressed.
    The project has little employment potential locally, as much of the work is sub-contracted. The economic benefits are also minimal, as Ireland will get no benefit from cheaper gas and must purchase gas at market prices.
    One would have expected the state machinery to have an energy policy to protect our natural resources and use them for the benefit of the people. The political establishment’s subservient attitude to Shell, and the use of state machinery, such as the Garda Síochána, to repress the community-inspired campaign against the current format of the project, reflects very badly on them. The one inspiring exception to this was Kevin Moore, senior planning inspector of An Bord Pleanála, whose comprehensive report stated that this was “the wrong site” in every aspect of the project.
    Two recent books outlining the history of the campaign are Our Story: The Rossport 5 (a series of moving interviews with the five and their wives) and The Price of Our Souls (the title inspired by the story of Bernadette McAliskey) by Michael McCaughan, recently published by AFRI. This book sets out the history of the project, its rationale, and the role of state bodies, the local community, and outside supporters. The author has a critical approach to the role of the state in not asserting its right to more control over our natural resources. This project could be the first of several major energy projects in the west of Ireland.
    Shell and the Government realised they had made a mistake (not to be repeated) in imprisoning the men and shifting the tide of opinion against the company. The author has much admiration for the local people, who began the long process of learning about the very technical area of gas pipeline construction and Government planning regulations. The level of local knowledge surprised the company officials, who often did not appear to have knowledge of their brief.
    The police and the company changed their tactics and began a process of intimidating and roughing up peaceful demonstrators, rather than arresting or charging them. The aim is to brand them as troublemakers, unruly, and even outside activists. Unfortunately this picture of local opposition is widespread, especially among middle classes in the region and outside, and weakens the community’s efforts to achieve a peaceful solution to this problem. The author suggests that the police are insufficiently trained in the skills of handling peaceful demonstrations and civil disobedience, or are unwilling to practise their skills in this respect.
    The Price of Our Souls is a very readable and comprehensive treatment of the Corrib gas project, including its international dimensions, the question of pipeline safety, and the experience of energy nationalism in countries such as Russia and Norway and in South America. In those countries the state is taking an active approach in determining its energy development priorities and exploiting its resources for the benefit of its own people.
    Despite the long-standing and courageous local campaign against the project, many people, including business sectors, the church establishment, and some media sectors, are not participating actively in the campaign, thereby facilitating the company in pursuing its project despite the lack of local consent.
    Some months ago three Mayo priests in Glinsk advocated an alternative route for the pipeline, along the Erris coastline, shortening the on-shore element and placing it in an area without local people.
    The record of Shell around the world suggests that sentiment plays no part in its plans, and it will seek to pursue its project despite security concerns. It will still have to meet stern local opposition of a do-or-die variety.
    The author suggests that Ireland is going through a period of extreme conservatism. Co. Mayo, despite its history of Michael Davitt and land struggles, is not exempt from this culture. A campaign of direct action involving more people is required to counteract the media propaganda machine, which inspires this and similar so-called development projects.
    The Price of Our Souls is a very valuable addition to information about this project, as also is the book on the Rossport Five.

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